The Socjournal » Timothy McGettigan

    May 11th, 2011

    IPAD workers kill themselves

    Foxconn Suicide Cluster | Run to your Death

    It’s slim, it’s light, it’s revolutionary, and it’s…annoying.

    The iPad’s popularity is nothing short of astounding. Apple’s tablet computer has been setting sales records ever since it was introduced. At first glance, this makes sense. Apple has, once again, created a computer that is way cooler than its competition. Also, having once been burned by Microsoft’s underselling tactics (nigh unto oblivion), Apple has learned the lesson of competitive pricing. Thus, not only has Apple introduced the slickest tablet on the market, but Apple has also managed to tickle customers’ fancy by selling the iPad for considerably less than any other competing device. Very impressive.

    Last fall, my netbook imploded so, over the Christmas holidays, I caved to the hype and purchased an iPad. Given all the rave reviews, I figured my new iPad was going to instantly catapult me into a new and more wondrous computing realm. Yeah, right. As P.T. Barnum once put it, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

    Contrary to all of the hoopla, my first impression of the iPad was chagrin at how much it couldn’t–and I was soon to discover, wouldn’t–do. For starters, after unpackaging the iPad, I was disappointed to discover that it was not a standalone computer. In other words, you can’t just turn the damned thing on and use it. Instead, first-time users must plug their revolutionary Apple tablet into some other computer that has been preloaded with iTunes–and to which the iPad must remain spiritually harnessed in perpetuity.


    Even more annoying, users cannot successfully breathe life into their iPads unless they provide the iTunes store with a credit card number with which to make “convenient” (Read: excessive, unnecessary impulse) purchases. Although this might be great for Apple’s bottom line, it also conveys the impression that Apple views its customers as easy marks from whom it can exact never-ending tribute. Not much of a first impression.

    Now, on to using the iPad. Apple likes to brag that there’s an app for just about everything. Yeah, right. I’m channeling P.T. Barnum on this one again. Suffice it to say that most iPad apps remain in development, which is another way of saying that they don’t work very well. I could create a long list of the shortcomings of specific iPad apps, but, since I’m trying to keep this article brief, I will simply say that, when it comes to the App Store, caveat emptor!

    Yet, more aggravating than the functions that iPad apps can’t accomplish are the myriad operations that the iPad refuses to accomplish. Yes, you read that correctly. There are a wide variety of straightforward computing operations, which most computer users have come to take for granted, that the iPad simply won’t allow. Once such activity is attaching documents to email.

    Again, WHY?!

    Of course, it is possible to send email attachments with the iPad, but apparently because Steve Jobs is opposed to traditional, straightforward file management, it requires a circuitous workaround: exiting the email program (…WHY!?) and sending files one–but not two, three, four or more–at a time.

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Steve Jobs: he’s a visionary who’s done more to spearhead the personal computing revolution than anyone in history, and I hope he lives to be at least two hundred years old. Three cheers for Steve! But, that said, he’s got this one wrong.

    Steve Jobs doesn’t like file management (or USB drives, or Chrome, or Flash, etc., etc.,) but his customers do–particularly this one. But that’s just too darn bad. The iPad is Steve’s baby and Steve wants iPad users to compute his way, not their way. So, when it comes to the iPad, it’s Steve’s way, or the highway.

    Well, I’ve tried the iPad, and I’m pleased to report that, no matter how busy that particular technology super-highway may be, there are plenty of exits–and I’m taking the very next exit to Linuxville.

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    Osama is Dead, but What Have We Learned?

    May 10th, 2011

    Despite all the euphoria, I am not going to celebrate Osama’s death. Sure, Osama was a thorn in America’s side for a long time, but, like we all learned in kindergarten, two wrongs don’t make a right.

    Certainly, Osama was a mean-spirited son of a gun. He killed a lot of people out of pure malice. What’s more, if he’d had the opportunity, he probably would have slaughtered lots more people. Worst of all, Osama claimed that he had the right to kill people based upon a distorted interpretation of Islam. As a result, gentle, peace-loving Muslims the world over have unfairly become the objects of misplaced scorn, abuse and discrimination.

    I concede that “something had to be done” about Osama, however, rather than viewing Osama’s execution as a cause for celebration, I think it would be better to treat this event as an opportunity for reflection. Who was Osama? Why did he become public enemy number one? And, how can we make the world a better, safer place in the post-Osama era?

    As everyone knows, Osama became a household name when we was infamously identified as the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. However, 9/11 was not Osama’s first atrocity. Not by a long shot. In the 1990s, Osama orchestrated a sequence of bombings at US embassies in Africa. At the time, Bill Clinton’s many detractors insisted that the President was wagging the dog when, in the midst the Lewinsky scandal, he mounted military operations targeting Osama and his terror network. Hindsight is twenty-twenty.

    Osama seemed to come out of nowhere in the 1990s and, in a sense, he did. As early as the 1980s, Osama’s base of operations lay in Afghanistan. For most Americans, Afghanistan was completely off the radar screen. However, in 1979, way back before the cold war was over, the Soviets decided to invade Afghanistan. Naturally, the US opposed this exercise in Soviet expansionism and made a covert, but concerted effort to undermine the Soviet invasion. Thus, it is important to emphasize that, during the 1980s, the US and Afghan rebel groups were allies: we were both fighting for a common cause against a common enemy. Even more significantly, in prosecuting that cause, the US also allied itself with none other than…Osama bin Laden.

    The degree to which the US officially trained and supported Osama remains a matter of dispute. Nevertheless, there is no question that, during the 1980s, the US and Osama both had friends and enemies in common. So, what happened? How did Osama go from being a strategic ally in the 1980s to public enemy number one?

    Although very few people in the US are willing to own up to it, the truth is: the US blew it. As the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan began falling apart, the US withdrew its support and left its former allies flapping in the breeze. From the US perspective, Afghanistan was just one small pawn in a much larger global struggle against socialism. When Afghanistan was deemed to be of no further use in that monumental struggle, the US turned its back on its former brothers in arms.

    Big mistake.

    Rather than tying up loose ends in Afghanistan and civilianizing a pro-American ally—at the cost of a few schools, roads, and injections of economic aid*—the US decided to cut and run. To put it mildly, this really pissed the Afghans and their sympathizers off. No one likes to be treated like cannon fodder. Thus, Afghanistan rapidly transformed from a steadfast ally into a simmering cauldron of anti-Americanism. The rest is, as they say, history.

    In Osama’s twisted mind, US treachery in Afghanistan justified his misguided jihad. That being the case, Osama has no one to blame but himself for his demise. There is no justification for murdering thousands of innocents just because you feel slighted by a former ally.

    That said, the US is far from blameless in this fiasco. Just imagine! Had we not been so short-sighted and self-serving, the US could have transformed its support for Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet rebellion into an enduring strategic partnership. Had we taken time to consider the potential consequences, the US could easily have chosen the other fork in the road: today we could be bosom buddies with Afghanistan. Oh, the humanity.

    Osama is dead, but I am not going to celebrate, because you don’t buy peace with murder—no matter which side of a war you may be on. If we’re going to win the war on terror, the US will never do it with bullets. Wars only end when enemies find a way to become allies. We had that opportunity in the 1980s, but we squandered it. Can we repair the damage? I’d like to think so, but it won’t happen until we quit foisting all the blame on Osama, and take a long hard look in the mirror.

    *If that sounds expensive, then compare it to the cost of an endless war.

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    Nuclear Nightmares: Damned Lies about the World’s “Safest” Energy Source

    April 7th, 2011

    Implausible as it may seem, as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has grown ever more cataclysmic, nuclear energy advocates have come out of the woodwork to tout the virtues of nuclear as a “safe” form of energy. Safe? Are you kidding me? Last night, rain containing measurable levels of radiation from Fukushima Daiichi fell on the east coast of North America. We will surely be on the wrong side of the looking glass when we start believing that an energy source which has contaminated huge swaths of the globe with hazardous waste is “safe.” If nuclear energy is safe, then Hitler was a charter member of the Anti-Defamation League.

    Still, the pro-nuke crowd argues that, compared to fossil fuels, nuclear is an emissions free energy source that merits a much cleaner, greener image than its dirty cousin, coal. That’s sort of like saying, nuclear energy is safe because it isn’t as lethal as cyanide tablets. First of all, nuclear vs. coal is a false dichotomy; that is, if we deplore the hazards of coal, then our only option must be a wholesale embrace of nuclear. Baloney. There are lots of other, better energy-production options (such as, solar, wind, geothermal, heliostat, fusion, etc.) that, if we only invest in them sufficiently, will light the way to a safer, more secure, renewable energy future.

    Certainly, it is true that coal is a dreadfully polluting form of energy and, if the human race has a modicum of sense, we will need to stop mining and burning so much of it. However, the idea that we can only rescue ourselves from a dirty, anachronistic fossil fuel by heating our homes with a WWII-era bomb-making technology makes about as much sense as using a gun to cure a migraine.

    Also, I think it is high time to put the nuclear energy industry’s safety record on trial. Since 1951, about 450 nuclear power plants have come online all over the world. Of that total, three facilities have experienced major and “improbable” failures that have, nonetheless, threatened the health and well-being of millions of people. Thus, as things currently stand, there is approximately a 1/150 chance that any particular nuclear power plant will have a major accident. In case you were wondering, those are not very long odds. Just imagine having a major accident every 150th time that you climb behind the wheel of your car. What’s even more scary is that, as the years go by, aging nuke plants will become more technologically out-of-date and more susceptible to accidents.

    No matter how shrill the pro-nuke rhetoric becomes, the facts won’t change. Disasters are a routine part nuclear power production. The more nuclear power plants that we construct, the more disasters that we will inevitably witness.

    Enough is enough.

    It takes genius to split atoms, but it takes an even higher order of genius to split atoms safely. Unfortunately, we aren’t that smart yet. Hopefully, we’ll wise up before it’s too late.

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    Where No One Has Gone Before: Renewable Energy Frontiers and Obama’s Sputnik Moment

    April 6th, 2011

    On Wednesday (3/30/11), Barack Obama announced a plan to cut US petroleum imports by as much as 33% by the year 2021. Now, that’s what I call leadership. Many of America’s biggest problems–terrorism, despotic oil tyrants, trade imbalances, etc.–are linked to over-dependency on foreign petroleum.

    Obama’s plan to reduce oil imports is based largely upon commitments to increase domestic petroleum production and energy conservation. OK, more efficient cars and better insulated homes will certainly cut energy waste. Also, I think Obama’s proposal to invest in biofuels has some merit, although I do not share Obama’s optimism about offshore oil production. Events last summer demonstrated that offshore petroleum production is far from a panacea. Hopefully, at the very least, Obama will take the precaution of excluding BP from any new offshore oil development opportunities in the western hemisphere.

    Far-reaching as Obama’s new energy vision may be, the current plan has a number of glaring deficiencies. For one, where does renewable energy fit into the picture?

    In his 2011 State of the Union address, Barack Obama declared that the US needed to seize this generation’s “Sputnik moment” to ensure that the US will remain a global leader in the years ahead. Obama’s point was that, in the 1950s, the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik signaled that the US was being eclipsed by its competitors in the struggle for global supremacy. In response, this initiated an unprecedented commitment to technological advancement in the form of the space race. In short, JFK declared that the US would go where no one else had gone before: the US would be the first nation to land space-travelers on the moon. As we know from history, the US won that race and, in doing so, laid the technological groundwork to claim leadership in the information society on terra firma.

    Thus, America’s original Sputnik moment enabled the the US to secure its position as a global leader in the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, the US faces a whole new range of challenges in a much-altered global village. Consequently, President Obama has asserted that the time has arrived for the US to reassert its claim to global leadership by embracing a new Sputnik moment. In other words, the US needs to identify a new aspiration that will enable it, once again, to outdistance its global competitors. The only thing lacking from President Obama’s State of the Union Address was a description of a specific event, or better still, an emergency–such as the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik–around which to unify and motivate the American public.

    Although I have an affinity for space exploration, I would argue that Obama’s Sputnik Moment, should he choose to seize it, is renewable energy development. As Obama has been saying since he was a candidate for president in 2008, it is high time for the US to end–not merely cut back on–its dependence on foreign oil. Quite simply, dependency on foreign oil causes the US nothing but huge expense, embarrassment (shouldn’t we be able to look after our own energy needs?) and hassles with often-fractious oil-producing nations. Who needs the headaches.

    If we want to put an end to the stranglehold that petty oil tyrants and their terrorist cousins have over the US, then all we will need to do is create a new energy future. And, when I use the words “new energy future,”, I am unequivocally not suggesting that the US should make huge investments in nuclear fission technology. As the Fukushima Daiichi disaster has illustrated so tragically and emphatically, nuclear fission is old, dirty, dangerous technology. Therefore, nuclear fission should not be part of America’s new energy future.

    In my opinion, a new energy future means that the US should commit itself, as it did with its conquest of the moon, to very literally going where no one else has gone before. More specifically, there are a wide range of technologies (such as, heliostat solar, orbital solar, nanotech solar, wind, wave, fusion, etc.) that are just beyond our fingertips and that would provide extraordinary new, clean, green, and abundant energy in order to power an energy-independent future. Indeed, the only thing that’s preventing the US from creating entirely new breeds of renewable energy is a sufficient sense of urgency and strong, focused leadership.

    JFK used his Sputnik moment to secure America’s leadership into the twenty-first century, can Barack Obama seize his Sputnik moment to ensure America’s ongoing leadership as we speed toward the twenty-second century?

    It’s merely a question of leadership. The moment is at hand.

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    It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy: The Final Days of the Gadhafi Regime in Libya

    April 5th, 2011

    Colonel Muammar Gadhafi’s days as Libya’s overlord are fast coming to a close. For an astonishing 41 years the people of Libya have been subjected Gadhafi’s abusive reign. However, seizing upon the revolutionary fervor that is sweeping through North Africa, the Libyan people have surged into the streets to demand an immediate end to the Gadhafi regime. Three cheers for the good people of Libya!

    As has been the case with other regional tyrants, Gadhafi has responded to demands for his ouster with shock and outrage. Having long grown accustomed to the abuse of power, the will of the people means nothing to Gadhafi. As such, Gadhafi has declared that he will die a martyr before relinquishing control over Libya. Since reason has never been one of Gadhafi’s strong suits, there is little hope that Gadhafi will take stock of the situation and work toward a peaceful, statesmanlike resolution.

    Not a chance.

    Having been thoroughly marinated in the bitter brine of authoritarianism, Gadhafi can only countenance one answer to the populist challenge that he faces: bloodshed. A dictator does not negotiate with his opposition, he crushes it.
    Of course, for Gadhafi, there really is no other option. His crimes have been so appalling–for example, we learned today that, among many other offenses, Gadhafi himself ordered the 1988 Lockerbie bombing–Gadhafi has little reason to believe that, should he be ousted, those who rise to power will be disposed to pardon him for his many sins. No, for Gadhafi, maintaining power is literally a life and death struggle. And Gadafi has already declared that he will not go quietly into that dark night.

    Reports indicate that Gadhafi has called in thousands of mercenaries to inflict terror on those who would presume to oppose him. Nice. A truly fitting end to Gadhafi’s malevolent regime. Hopefully, the mercenaries will get a clue and realize that this really is the end. If they fight for Gadhafi, then they will not only be fighting against the good people of Libya, but they will also be fighting against the tide of history.

    I sincerely hope that the mercenaries will quickly gain a better grasp of the historical moment that they are facing than Gadhafi. A tide of political change is sweeping through North Africa and, though Gadhafi would like to hold back the tide, neither one man nor five thousand mercenaries could possibly hope to do so.

    It is time for Gadhafi to face the music and, more importantly, it is high time for a new political era in Libya.

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    Pouring Gas on the Fire: Chavez Reaches out to Qaddafi

    March 4th, 2011

    Libya is being torn apart by an intransigent tyrant who can’t see the writing on the wall. If Qaddafi can no longer remain in power, then he has decided to murder as many Libyans as possible before waltzing into retirement. Old habits die hard.
    Sensing that his comrade might be in hot water, Hugo Chavez has offered to serve as a mediator between Qaddafi and Libya’s fed-up citizenry. Wow, that’s, um…very helpful, Hugo. Let’s see, what kind of special skills would Hugo Chavez bring to the negotiating table?

    1. Chavez and Qaddafi are good old boys 2. Chavez is an authoritarian tyrant 3. Chavez has zero tolerance for the voices of opposition in Venezuela 4. Chavez has maintained power by brutally crushing his opponents 5. Chavez is terrified that, if the rebellions in North Africa continue to succeed, the burgeoning anti-autocratic fervor might spread to other continents

    6. Aha!

    All things considered–and much as we appreciate the gesture, Hugo–I recommend that you take your “special set of negotiating skills” and go fly a kite. What Libya needs right now is a whole lot less of Qaddafi and people like you. Don’t get me wrong, Hugo, I can understand why you might not appreciate input from your neighbors to the north. We’ve never been very supportive of your regime and, again, I know how antagonized you are by opposing ideas and democratic principles. Nevertheless, it’s time to face the facts. The glory days of North African tyrants have come and gone. Thanks to common sense, Facebook (BTW, who would have believed that FB could play such an integral role in the struggle for political progress?? Three cheers for FB!), and a whole lot of Libyan courage, the tide has finally turned against Qaddafi–and there’s nothing you can do about it, dude. Bitter as it may seem, the one global leader who really has a handle on the situation in Libya is Barack Obama. In case you missed the headlines, President Obama has demanded that Qaddafi cease his reprisals and slither out of office ASAP. Obama has also stated that the US will keep all options on the table in its efforts to support the people of Libya in their struggle against oppression. How’s that for a commitment to democracy?

    Times they are a changin’, Hugo. Get used to it. The heyday of North African tyranny is over. Hopefully, the same will soon be true of South American tyranny as well.

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    Bill Gates is an Idiot: A Recipe for Educational Failure

    March 2nd, 2011

    The Microsoft Touch

    Bill Gates should stick to what he does best: selling crappy software. As an education analyst he is a fish out of water. In response to the news that education budgets are being slashed all across the US, Bill Gates put forward an argument (“How Teacher Development Could Revolutionize Our Schools,” Washington Post, 2/28/11) in which he suggests that the US is actually spending more on education. Wow, Bill, I guess that’s the kind of acuity that helped build Microsoft into the world’s greatest knock-off software company.

    According to Bill, for decades the US has spent more on education and garnered less from it: fewer graduates, lower test scores, etc. Blame for this sorry state of affairs rests with (drum roll please) under-performing teachers. How’s that for a fresh, new insight? NOT!

    Even better, Bill’s silver bullet is to “flip the curve.” In other words, in the finest tradition of boardroom showmanship, Bill contends that we can solve the education crisis by–wait for it–spending less on education and demanding more. Ta-daa! It’s enough to bring tears to a stockholder’s eyes. You go, Billy Boy.

    The only problem is that Bill’s curve-flipping argument is utter piffle. The truth is that education budgets have been shrinking for a long time. Yes, you can jiggle the numbers around to create an illusion of prosperity, but the truth is that education has been taking it on the chin for a long time. If you doubt my word, do some research. Educators everywhere will tell you that budgets have been getting tighter rather than fatter. Further, the long-term educational budget squeeze has netted predictable results: teachers are working harder in resource-starved schools and students are treading water.

    The good news is that Bill Gates has figured out how to fix all of those problems. Oh, yeah. Bill is going to develop “new metrics” with which to identify high-performing teachers. Next, Bill is going to crowd more students into those good classrooms. (BTW, there’s no need to be concerned about the negative correlation between classroom over-crowding and educational quality is there? Nah.) Naturally, good teachers are going to love this arrangement because Bill is going to increase their salaries by firing all of the bad teachers. And this will all be accomplished at no additional cost to the taxpayer. Wahoo.

    Still, I can’t help noticing that there’s just one teensy little problem with Bill Gates’ vision for American education: Bill doesn’t know what the heck he’s talking about. Why does a software geek think that he’s qualified to create educational metrics? Given the many quality concerns that have plagued Microsoft over the years, I think it’s fair to say that quality assessment has never been Bill Gates’ strong suit. If education is experiencing a crisis, I would hazard that it is due to the interventions of self-appointed experts like Bill Gates who wield their ignorance like weapons.

    If there is one thing that Bill Gates and I can agree on, it’s that the solution to the education crisis is simple. Of late, our highest national budgetary priorities have been investments in failure: bailing out bankrupt corporations, propping up failing banks, distributing bonuses to incompetent bankers, etc. However, I argue that, instead of investing in failure, we should return to the days of investing in success. Certainly, creating an educational system that was the envy of the 20th century world was not cheap, but it is an investment that has paid huge dividends. Perhaps more than anyone, Bill Gates should grasp the fact that the US became the leader of the information society by making a bigger investment in education than anyone else. If we cut our investment in education–as Bill Gates advocates–then the information revolution will certainly surge ahead in the 21st century, but the US will no longer be at the forefront. However, if we want to sustain the kind of opportunities to which Bill Gates owes his success, then we will have to redouble our commitment to education.

    Oh, and one last point: expertise matters. Software experts should run software companies. The more we rely on software experts to design educational policy, the greater the chance that we’ll end up with Microsoft Vista-version of schooling.

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    Miracles in the Making: Information Technology and Middle East Populism

    February 22nd, 2011

    Clashes in Egypt

    Amid all the chaos, it is difficult to pinpoint the precise motivation for the political rebellions throughout North Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps it’s the usual Ameri-centric egotism at work, but in the US speculation has centered on the ubiquitous appeal for democracy. In other words, throughout North Africa and the Middle East, people have finally gotten sick of tyranny and, in the finest spirit of democratic populism, have surged into the streets to send the despots packing.

    One can only hope that the tyrants will get the message and yield to this new political wave gracefully–or, at least, will respond with as little vengeance as possible. When the jig is up, it’s time to move on. In that regard, hopefully, Hosni Mubarak will serve as an example for the rest.

    Certainly, I am not suggesting that Hosni Mubarak is a hero. Far from it. Had he been able to crush the uprising in Tahrir Square and remain Egypt’s dictator-for-life, I’m sure he would have. However, the rebels in Tahrir Square proved uncrushable. Indeed, Mubarak did his best to intimidate the protestors into acquiescence. After all, such tactics had proven effective for the past three decades, so, like any Machiavellian thug worth his salt, he figured the same approach would snuff the rebel fervor in the winter of 2011. Except this time it didn’t work. So, why the change?

    The new wrinkle that has helped protestors outflank Mubarak and other dictators is ubiquitous access to information technology. Three decades ago it was possible to crush political rebellions with merciless swiftness. So long as an uprising remained localized and the vicious tactics used to smash the revolt remained undocumented, tyrants could get away with murder. However, times have changed.

    If he had his druthers, Mubarak would have obliterated the Tahrir Square protestors with the well-practiced malevolence that had served so well in the past. Unfortunately for Mubarak and other dictators, in the information age, every tactical decision they make can be instantly broadcast, via the magic of personal digital technology, to the entire world. In the end, Mubarak was undone by people-power and the Internet. He may have hoped to annihilate the Tahrir Square protestors with a Tianamen Square-style military blitz, but, because the eyes of the world were upon him, a scene of such extraordinary carnage was simply untenable. What’s a 21st century autocrat to do?

    Just as it is nigh on impossible in the information age to conceal acts of political repression, so too has it proven impossible to localize popular political agitation. Thus, in decades past, what would surely have been an isolated December 2010 uprising in Tunisia has steadily transformed North Africa and the Middle East into the most widespread scene of political activism that the world has seen in a century.

    For those who love populism, it is clear that information technology has conferred a new form of power upon the people. However, fashioning a stable, populist future out of the current state of political upheaval will take more than power, it will also require wisdom. It remains to be seen if, in addition to inspiring higher levels of connectivity and activism, information technology can also inspire a higher level of collective wisdom.

    Hope springs eternal. Heck, a few weeks ago, no one would have guessed that Mubarak would be out on his keister. If miracles like that can happen, then there’s good reason to hope that a few more miracles might be in the offing.

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    May the Fittest Survive: The National Academy of Sciences vs. Creationism

    September 14th, 2010

    BOOK REVIEW: Science, Evolution, and Creationism 2008. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    In an effort to extol the virtues of evolution, the National Academy of Sciences has published an updated version of Science, Evolution, and Creationism (2008). In this brief, but colorful book, a coterie of prestigious scientists take readers on a whirlwind tour of the triumphant and tumultuous history of evolutionary theory. It’s quite a story. There’s a surprising amount of information packed into this brief overview. Still, brainy as the book’s team of co-authors happens to be, they have also worked hard to ensure that Science, Evolution, and Creationism remains accessible. And, sure enough, it’s a relatively easy read; anyone with an eighth grade education should be able to knock this out in an afternoon. In addition, I suspect that Science, Evolution, and Creationism has been intentionally designed to look and feel like a Dr. Seuss book (it’s about the same size, thickness and weight) in order to encourage readers of all ages to explore its pages. Presumably, the National Academy of Sciences has learned something from all the librarians who insist that half the literacy battle lies in finding some way to get kids–and adults!–to pick up books. I guess it’s worth a try.

    Science as religion and ideology

    Also, if you have an aptitude for reading between the lines, it will quickly become apparent that the National Academy of Sciences is intent on achieving a number of additional objectives with Science, Evolution, and Creationism. While the book is certainly a recruitment tool, it is also loaded with pre-emptive messages for would-be opponents of evolutionary theory. In particular, Science, Evolution, and Creationism is composed as a one-sided debate with Creationism: a debate, the book emphasizes, that evolution has consistently won ever since  Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. Evolution is a theory, the National Academy of Science will have you know, that has endured intensive scientific scrutiny and fiery public debate. Yet, despite the plaudits of the scientific community, throughout its history, various groups have repeatedly taken steps to undermine evolutionary theory, and nowhere more so than in the classroom (Monastersky, Richard, 2006; Simon, 2008). Indeed, it was just such an episode that motivated the National Academy of Sciences to republish this updated version of Science, Evolution, and Creationism.

    During the fall of 2004, the Dover Area School District enacted a resolution that required all of its ninth grade biology teachers to read a statement asserting that evolution was such a feeble perspective that it was hardly worthy of being called a theory. In addition, the statement touted “Intelligent Design” as an appealing alternative, and even went so far as to proffer copies of a best-selling Intelligent Design text, Of Pandas and People (1989). To their credit, Dover’s ninth grade biology teachers, citing a Pennsylvania educational code stating that teachers cannot present information to students that they believe is false, refused to read the statement. When a school administrator insisted on reading the statement anyway, a group of parents filed a lawsuit.

    After a lengthy bench trial, Judge John E. Jones III ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Essentially, Judge Jones concluded that Intelligent Design was a thinly-veiled version of Creationism and, as such, lacked the necessary scientific substance to serve as a rigorous counterpoint to evolution. Upon the announcement of this decision, supporters of evolutionary theory, both inside and outside the scientific community, breathed a collective sigh of relief. Yet again, the most important biological theory in the history of science had overcome a stealth attack from its theologically-motivated rivals.

    Still, important as this decision might have been for supporters of evolutionary theory, there was no time to celebrate. A variety of opinion polls conducted during 2005 revealed that a substantial portion of the general public remained unswayed by the logic of evolutionary theory. In spite of the longstanding dominance of evolutionary theory in scientific circles (and, yes, in high school biology text books), in 2005, nearly fifty percent of Americans held fast to profoundly anti-evolutionary convictions such as: “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time” (Goodstein, 2005), or “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” (Keeter, 2005). Scientists may have won their battle in court, but they were losing the more treacherous struggle to influence public opinion.

    For the scientific community this was a body blow. After all, evolution has been the dominant theory in the field of biology for over a hundred years. Among serious scientists there is almost zero dispute about the validity of evolutionary theory. It’s a simple theory that explains a heck of a lot (i.e., nearly everything you could ever want to know about the history of life on the planet). What’s not to like?

    Bitter as it may be, the scientific community has had to face the fact that, for those whose daily round carries them outside the sphere of scientific endeavor, evolutionary theory remains unsatisfying. Although the search for scientific truth operates independently of public opinion (e.g., scientific truths, such as Einstein’s contention that space is curved, are often at variance with widespread perceptions of reality), nevertheless, public antipathy can sometimes legitimate policy decisions that stymie scientific progress (Bellomo, 2006). Thus, evolutionary scientists would be ill-advised to ignore such a resounding expression of negative public sentiment. Something would have to be done. But precisely what sort of response should the scientific community mount?

    Although evolution offers cunningly plausible explanations for the key processes that constitute life on the planet earth, nevertheless, there are important aspects of human existence that evolution currently fails to compass. For example, evolutionary theory provides weak-at-best spiritual support for a planet full of soul-searching mortals.

    At some point in our lives, just about everyone ponders big questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? Being the parsimonious scientific theory that it is, evolution offers much more nimble responses to questions concerning the mechanics of life than its aesthetics. Thus, evolution’s answer to such profound philosophical questions typically boils down to, “stuff happens.” While such a view might be logical and acceptable to evolutionary scientists, for anyone plagued by deep-seated concerns about the ultimate meaning of existence, “stuff happens” simply doesn’t cut it. Soul-searchers crave answers that are more personally relevant than evolution’s standard shtick: “Life as we know it has been shaped by a fortuitous convergence of random natural processes, etc., etc….”

    Of course, scientists look forward to the happy day when they will be able to construct a “Theory of Everything” (Hawking, 2007). However, for now, the scientific grasp of the cosmos in any field, though impressive, is far from encompassing. While evolution can explain much about the history of life on the planet, it cannot yet answer every question that humans contemplate, e.g., What is the significance of being? For those issues that evolution is unprepared to tackle, it is appropriate for scientists either to remain mum, or, as the National Academy of Science has elected to do in Science, Evolution, and Creationism, to open the door to other opinions. Having delineated their differences with theology, the authors of Science, Evolution, and Creationism have also incorporated numerous observations from scientists and theologians who argue that religion and evolution need not be perceived as contradictory. The implication being that, since science and theology explore a variety of issues that do not overlap, one could argue that these distinct endeavors might somehow be complimentary–or, at least, there are many issues over which adherents of these perspectives need not go to war…at least not at the moment.

    As such, Science, Evolution, and Creationism is designed to chart a new course through the minefields of public opinion and, thereby, win over a larger percentage of reluctant converts. Science, Evolution, and Creationism asserts that religion and evolution need not be at loggerheads; if they work diligently to avoid stepping on each other’s toes, there is a distinct possibility that religious dogma and evolution can work side-by-side. Therefore, individuals who seek solace in the realms of religion can also seek answers to many of life’s enduring mysteries in the fields of scientific endeavor.

    Interesting strategy, but will it work?

    For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the National Academy of Sciences’ strategy is effective: lots of recruits pick up Science, Evolution, and Creationism and, in its pages, get an updated introduction to evolutionary theory. Now for the million-dollar question, ”Will new readers come away more favorably disposed toward evolution?”

    That’s a tough question. To be perfectly honest (though I am sorry to say it), I don’t think so. More than anything, Science, Evolution, and Creationism offers a condensed overview of the protracted battle between evolution and its tenacious (often theological) detractors. Frankly, I think opponents of evolution will be unimpressed by the book’s token concessions to theology, whereas the majority of scientists will scoff at the suggestion that theology can provide any useful avenues of enlightenment. Therefore, in spite of the National Academy of Sciences’ attempt to coordinate a Creation-Evolution group hug, the disconnect between evolution and many of its theological opponents are simply too deep and unyielding to permit meaningful compromise. Having gone their separate ways, these distinct paradigms will remain on separate and antagonistic intellectual trajectories until one or the other (if you will pardon me) goes extinct. If there are flaws or deficiencies in evolutionary theory, they will not be remedied through hybridizing evolution with Creationism. Any deficiencies in evolutionary theory will only be effectively ameliorated by redefining reality (McGettigan, 2008) through an evolutionary, rather than a Creationistic, lens.

    Though pithy and carefully crafted, the argument developed in Science, Evolution, and Creationism is better designed to confirm the convictions of believers than to convert non-believers. In other words, the National Academy of Science is preaching to the choir. Rational compromises are possible only when all parties involved a conflict are committed to achieving rational solutions. Unfortunately, paradigm conflict is rarely rational. What’s more, being right is not necessarily the shortest route to popularity; in fact, it’s usually a recipe for the reverse (check with any classroom Brainiac to confirm this). As I have argued elsewhere (McGettigan, 2008), the means through which beliefs are shaped–and hearts and minds are won–often has more to do with power than truth. Evolution may never win a popularity contest, but it will persevere by doing precisely what it does best: finding better, more convincing ways to explain life, the universe, and everything through a scientific lens. If that rubs Creationists the wrong way, then so be it.

    May the fittest paradigm survive.


    Bellomo, Michael, 2006. The Stem Cell Divide: The Facts, the Fiction, and the Fear Driving the Greatest Scientific, Political, and Religious Debate of Our Time. New York: AMACOM.

    Davis, Percival and Dean H. Kenyon, 1989. Of Pandas and People: The Central Question of Biological Origins. Richardson, Texas: Foundation for Thought and Ethics.

    Goodstein, Laurie, 2005, “Teaching of Creationism Is Endorsed in New Survey.” New York Times, August 31, 2005.

    Hawking, Stephen W., 2007. The Theory of Everything: The Origin and Fate of the Universe. New York: Phoenix Books.

    Keeter, Scott, 2005. “What’s Not Evolving Is Public Opinion.” Washington Post, Sunday, October 2, 2005.

    McGettigan, Timothy, 2008. “Anomaly Overload: An Evolutionary Theory of Truth.” Theory & Science, 10 (1).

    Monastersky, Richard, 2006, “On the Front Lines in the War Over Evolution,” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 10, 2006.

    National Academies of Science, Institute of Medicine, 2008. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Simon, Stephanie, 2008, “Evolution’s Critics Shift Tactics With Schools: Pressure Hits States For Education Bills; A National Push.” Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2008; Page A10.

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    The Free Market That Never Was

    July 26th, 2010

    A comparison of “socialized” versus private health care

    According to some critics, Barrack Obama’s efforts to work out a federal solution to the health care crisis implies that he is a socialist. Indeed, free market logic tends to assert that any form of state interference in private enterprise is, by definition, socialism. Fair enough, but if we use such stringent criteria, then, by extension, we would also have to conclude that the past dozen or so Presidents have all been socialists. Regardless of party affiliation, the vast majority of 20th and 21st century Commanders-in-Chief have been big supporters of federal economic intervention–the extent to which that establishes their credentials as died-in-the-wool socialists is somewhat debatable. Nonetheless, troubling as it may seem, US government “interference” in the private enterprise system has actually been far more common and, dare I say, more beneficial than we often like to admit.

    Of course, such a declaration is certain to be viewed as sacrilege by free market enthusiasts. The received wisdom among free marketeers is that any form of governmental intervention is synonymous with bureaucratic bungling. Beginning with Adam Smith, economic theorists have insisted that free markets work best when they are unregulated. That is, in the ethereal absence of government regulation, an “Invisible Hand” magically optimizes market relationships. It’s an inspiring image and, although somewhat Utopian, the fabled Invisible Hand nonetheless affirms many of the fundamental rights and values of free market-worshippers, i.e., small government, individuality, private property.

    It’s also pure baloney.

    Free marketeers are forever clamoring for economic deregulation. Without doubt, deregulated economies open up extraordinary opportunities for profiteers to bag short term gains. However, an environment of diminished regulation also amplifies the likelihood of economic catastrophe. The financial crashes of 1929 and 2008 offer two instructive examples. In the period immediately preceding each collapse, laissez faire economic philosophies monopolized the hearts and minds of policy-makers. Thus, free marketeers generally see naught but virtue in economic deregulation, however, the reality is that deregulated economic systems are train wrecks waiting to happen. The unfettered pursuit of profit consistently consumes and destroys its very own means of survival. Invisible Hand, indeed!

    I suppose the true meaning of the Invisible Hand is that, in the aftermath of financial disasters, the Invisible Hand is nowhere to be found. When free marketeers need a helping hand in the wake of an economic meltdown they don’t turn to Adam Smith, instead they call upon the much-maligned, but ever-dependable federal government.

    Indeed, not only is government regulation the most effective means of preventing free marketeers from destroying the economy, but government intervention is perhaps the most essential ingredient in the process of creating a vigorous and stable economy. For example, FDR engineered a miraculous recovery from the Great Depression by imposing unprecedented federal control over the economy. In doing so, he also laid the foundation for creative new public-private synergies (a.k.a., the military-industrial complex). Quite literally, the partnerships that FDR orchestrated between the federal government and private industry not only laid the groundwork for US success during WWII, but those partnerships have also secured America’s enduring status as a super-power throughout the post-war era.

    Jumping ahead to the economic fiasco of 2008, the same-old pattern has played out: free marketeers deregulated the economy to the brink of oblivion and then foisted responsibility for disaster recovery onto the feds. Yet, if there is a silver lining to the 2008 financial meltdown, it’s that, right on cue, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand has taken a powder. For example, from the very moment that Hank Paulson (arch free marketeer, and former Secretary of the Treasury under G.W. Bush) realized the full scope of the 2008 financial disaster, he instantly became a profligate socialist: overseeing the most costly bailout of the US financial system in the nation’s history. Free marketeers are unrepentant advocates of privatized profit and socialized risk. Damage control is–always has been and always will be–the domain of the federal government.

    Fortunately, having accumulated lots of experience with the malign influences of the Invisible Hand, the feds have developed a well-oiled capacity to coordinate post-meltdown recoveries. For example, isn’t it amazing how in the space of only a few short months all of the bankrupt banks, having been bailed out and propped up by the feds, have returned to profitability? Also, like a phoenix from the ashes, General Motors has emerged from bankruptcy under Big Brother’s watchful eye with a brand new focus on innovation, customer service, and 21st century profitability. Isn’t it extraordinary what wonders can be produced with a well-timed dose of governmental intervention?

    Thus, there is no such thing as a “free market.” On those occasions when the US economy has undergone “enhanced market freedom” (i.e., periods of excessive deregulation), disaster has been quick to follow. Experience has demonstrated that best form of governance involves a close, carefully-managed partnership between public and private initiatives. Interestingly, that is precisely the type of collaboration that Barrack Obama has advocated as a solution to the health care crisis. If that makes President Obama a “socialist”, then I suppose that means that every major public-private endeavor–including initiatives such as national defense, the interstate highway system, communications infrastructure, etc.–that the United States has undertaken has been a form of socialism. Frankly, I think that gives socialism way too much credit. Socialism generally propagates atrociously monolithic, tyrannical and stagnant socio-economic systems (the two most shining examples being the Soviet Union, and Maoist China). The US owes its success as a superpower not to socialism, but to its unique ability to develop a dynamic equilibrium between “managed market” enterprise and public welfare. Ongoing success is assured so long as the US can preserve and enhance its dynamic climate of synergized public and private interests.

    Up till now, Americans have permitted the free market to determine the cost and quality of our health care. Not surprisingly, the result is a nightmare that could only be the product of the ham fisted Invisible Hand: substandard health care that’s too expensive for most Americans to use. We can do better. As illustrated above, the best way to fix the health care system is to engage federal oversight and regulation to curb the free market excesses that have brought about the health care crisis. The solution is much simpler than most of us dare believe. If the feds can kick General Motors in the pants and turn it around in just a few short months, then they can do the same for health care.

    President Obama is on the right track. With a bit of intervention and guidance from the feds, we can put an end to the free market crisis in health care and thereby improve the health, welfare and longevity of our nation and every one of its citizens.

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